Why eighteen teenagers walked out into the woods on the coldest night of the year…

Published February 5th, 2015

6 comments

winter-trackThe sun was below the horizon and dropping almost as fast as the temperature. Every few minutes another set of headlights would wash over us and another excited teen would climb out of their car, pledge that they had brought enough gear, and add their overstuffed backpack to the pile.

I don’t think it’s an accident that our ancestors designed rites of passage that were not just challenging, not only difficult, but dangerous. From what I gather there was often a very real chance that teens would die in the process.

The instructors arrived 45 minutes early to go over the plan for the 2-nights, and to unite by sharing what we were feeling grateful for and what our intentions were for the week.

I was feeling grateful for my teachers who had taken me out camping in sub-zero temperatures, who had shown me that it was not only possible, but fun. Well… “Fun” might not be the right word. Heroic seems a better fit.

I believe, because I feel it and see it, that the human spirit craves challenge. For all of our human existence there has been a baseline level of challenge required to live.

A hundred years ago pioneers subsisted during the winter on trapped, hunted, and stored food. Something that would be nigh impossible using our modern talents, but for them it was only difficult compared to living in the summer. No, challenging and difficult don’t quite get at it.

…the goal is not simply to survive; the goal is to live big.

Difficult is good hard work, but ‘difficult’ fails to ignite the heroic spirit. I don’t think it’s an accident that our ancestors designed rites of passage that were not just challenging, not only difficult, but dangerous. From what I gather there was often a very real chance that teens would die in the process. Sounds alarming, but one could say the same thing of childbirth in the same era, and thank goodness our ancestors didn’t avoid that out of fear.

2013-11-23-17.35Rites of passage had to be dangerous to focus the tornado that is the teenage heroic spirit, because without it (and sometimes even with it) that undirected tornado would sweep over to the neighboring tribe, steal their horses, and clumsily start a war. I don’t think we’re short on examples of how today’s unchallenged teens are trying appease that heroic energy by doing things that are considered dangerous and stupid. For the hero and heroine the goal is not simply to survive; the goal is to live big. The question is: what good is your long life if you spent it in a sterile cage? I certainly remember how black and white things seemed when I was a teen.

One of the things that gives my life the most meaning is the opportunity to create “dangerous” experiences that challenge the human spirit. I use that word in quotes because it’s the perception of danger that is important. As soon as your body thinks it may be in trouble the cortisol does the rest. (By the way, cortisol is converted from cholesterol –anyone want to try my new fad weight-loss program?)

So if anyone asks why we were running around the dark woods while the temperature plummeted into the single digits, pretending we were on opposite teams trying to capture each other’s flags and score “points” that we logically knew didn’t matter, all we can say is, “Because it was fun!”

But the real answer is: because we needed to remember that we are alive. Alive and enormous.


Tyler McNamaraTyler McNamaraTyler McNamara, Programs Director

Tyler has been leading groups outdoors since 1999, from whitewater kayakers at Zoar Outdoor to snowboarders at Berkshire East to human ecology students at Greenfield Community College. Since completing Vermont Wilderness School’s two-year apprenticeship in 2005, Tyler has led wilderness programs for children ages 6-17 in Vermont, Massachusetts, New York and Ontario. He has directed teams of staff for programs with 40+ participants since 2007. Tyler is certified in Wilderness First Aid and CPR through SOLO Wilderness Emergency Medicine. Currently, he works as Programs Director for Wild Earth and is finishing his first novel. More about Tyler's work.

6 thoughts on “Why eighteen teenagers walked out into the woods on the coldest night of the year…”

  1. David Brownstein says:

    What a great post, Tyler. I am grateful for the heroism of you and your staff in leading the way for our teens!

  2. Dude, I’m so glad you took the time to write this and to share it! You’re doing powerful work with our teens and children. I’m grateful to be a part of this team and to know you as an ally in living a full life!

  3. Marisa Goudy says:

    This is brilliant! Tyler, we so enjoyed your storytelling at the wool dyeing a few weeks ago; it’s great to come across your writing. I curate a weekly newsletter for creative entrepreneurs called the Sovereign Standard, and I’m focusing on getting through this winter chill that so often freezes us up on this inside as much as the outside and I’m looking forward to featuring this piece as a way to get beyond the typical February blues.
    Also, this reminds me of the Anne Lamott novel, Imperfect Birds, about a family’s struggle with teen drug abuse. Without giving away too much, outdoor winter survival training was key to surviving.
    With gratitude, Marisa

    1. Thanks Marisa! Re:storytelling I received a comic from one of the other listeners that was hilarious!

      If you do end up using this story in the Sovereign Standard I’d love a few copies (is it in print form?) and if you would link to my personal creative writing project Reality Fan Fiction http://tylerrmcnamara.blogspot.com/ I would appreciate it.

      Thanks!

    2. Tyler says:

      Thanks Marisa! Re:storytelling I received a comic from one of the other listeners that was hilarious!

      If you do end up using this story in the Sovereign Standard I’d love a few copies (is it in print form?) and if you would link to my personal creative writing project Reality Fan Fiction http://tylerrmcnamara.blogspot.com/ I would appreciate it.

      Thanks!

      1. Marisa Goudy says:

        Haven’t made it to print yet, but I have email subscribers (who find their way to me here: http://marisagoudy.com/the-sovereign-standard/) and it’ll appear at http://marisagoudy.com.
        Happy to link to your other project. Stay warm out there!

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